More than a third of El Paso County's $4.1 million budget hole for the current year will likely be filled with clever accounting: shifting money from other accounts to cover some general-fund transportation expenses.
The head of the department that manages the county's buildings plans to chip in another $550,000 by skipping repairs, delaying maintenance and hoping for no broken boilers or bursting pipes.
By adding these savings to those achieved by leaving some county jobs unfilled and paper orders unplaced, the county expects to find $4 million of its needed 2007 savings in places many residents will never notice.
More noticeable is the plan to eke out the last $100,000 in savings: Officials expect to close most county buildings the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and once a week for the month between.
Unless a pipe freezes and flooding ensues, most of the savings should come from reduced utility bills while the buildings sit dark and chilly, according to County Administrator Jeff Greene.
Four of the county's five commissioners saw gravity in considering such closures.
"Has this ever happened before?" Commissioner Sallie Clark asked last week during the budget discussion.
"Not that I know about," Greene replied.
"So we're really at the breaking point," Clark observed.
Douglas Bruce alone drew a different conclusion.
"The board wastes that much [at] every meeting I've been here," Bruce said.
Closing the county, he said after the meeting, is a strategy to soften voters for a potential tax-raising question next year.
Commission Chair Dennis Hisey dismisses Bruce's claim that closing county offices is unnecessary.
"I think he's grasping at straws," Hisey says. "The bottom line is, we've only got 50 days [left in the year]."
The closing plan actually has two parts. The weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, many offices will just stay closed the entire working week. For those extra six days off, county employees will have to take vacation or sick time, or, lacking those, go unpaid.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, employees will work four 10-hour days, according to the proposal, thus keeping offices closed for a full three days.
The $100,000 saved on utility bills is not insignificant, Hisey says, and it beats alternatives like scrapping whole departments.
The county has dipped into its reserves in the past to make up shortfalls, but Hisey says those reserves are now "perilously low." And if the county sees storms in coming weeks that are anything like those that hit early last winter, he says, the reserves could be needed to pay overtime to mechanics who work around the clock keeping snowplows on the road.
Whatever cuts Hisey and the other commissioners approve to smooth out the 2007 budget, their next step will be finding additional savings for 2008.
If employees and residents take to the four-day workweek, Hisey says, continuing that next year might be an option.
As for a possible tax increase, Hisey says he is only interested in going to voters if officials can come up with a "long-term solution that meets the county's needs."
Out like a lion? While bickering is pretty much routine at meetings of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, last week's budget cut session took a step toward outright brawling.
Commissioner Douglas Bruce set the tone by going after various county employees. County Administrator Jeff Greene, he suggested, had stalled before delivering documents showing the salary trajectories of certain employees.
The documents, requested by a local TV station, show that the salaries of six employees doubled or tripled in a matter of years. Bruce called the information "embarrassing"; other commissioners applauded employees for winning promotions.
Later in the meeting, Sheriff Terry Maketa responded to Bruce, calling his remarks "embarrassing and deplorable."
Maketa said he "wholeheartedly" supports Bruce's bid to be appointed to the state House seat of Rep. Bill Cadman, who has been picked to fill a Senate seat left vacant by Ron May's retirement.
"It would put you in an environment that would match your ineffectiveness," Maketa said.
Even if Bruce is appointed to the House, the fireworks could continue for a few more weeks. Bruce said he would stay on the commission as long as possible before the 2008 legislative session starts in January.
"Why would I want to leave and do nothing when I can cause so much consternation among the spend-aholics?" he asked.
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